Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Books!

Posted by Russell on November 29, 2006 at 9:50 p.m.
Book Burro is easily the most useful Firefox extension I have found. People who do a lot of HTML hacking might bestow that honor on Web Developer. I don't, so Book Burro gets my vote.

Oh, and AdBlock, but that's not simply useful. It's necessary.

Time to Leave

Posted by Russell on November 25, 2006 at 5:42 a.m.
Shiites Iraqis are burning Sunni Iraqis alive with kerosene in retaliation for multiple coordinated car-bombings that killed hundreds of people. The al-Sadr faction in in the Iraqi parliament is threatening to bolt the ruling coalition if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki even meets with President Bush. This will likely cause the government to collapse, and there isn't much likelihood that parliament will be able to form a new government.

I would have called it a civil war a long time ago, but if this level of violence continues (it will), and if the government collapses (it probably will sooner or later), then it's definitely a civil war. The Pentagon's claim that it is not already a civil war must be based on some very technical definition of the term "civil war." For example, that it's not a civil war until an officially recognized regional government entity formally declares independence, raises an army, meets the army of the national government on the battlefield and engages in conventional warfare. That's how our civil war happened. That isn't how most civil wars of the 20th century happened.

Civil wars reflect the societies that wage them. The American Civil War reflected the antagonism among elements of 19th century American society, and the Mason-Dixon line, the geographic and cultural fracture along which the two sides split, was a feature of existing devisions.

The bloodshed in Iraq reflects the divisions in Iraqi society; what is happening now is exactly what skeptics of the invasion warned us would happen. As you may recall, it was theorized that the only thing holding Iraq together was the universal fear of Saddam Hussein. It was his regime alone, and not any sense of national identity, that held the country together. Removing Saddam from power would be like removing the iron hoops from a barrel under pressure; with nothing holding the staves together, the barrel would blow apart. This was the conventional wisdom from the end of the Gulf War until Colin Powell's infamous presentation to the U.N. Now, we can turn on the news any day and see that it was right on the money.

This war is our fault, but we are not serving and can not serve any meaningful positive role in the country now that these events are in motion. The only humane thing we can do for Iraq is pack up our things and leave, and promise to never, ever come back. We have been fucking with the Middle East for too long.

Tasering people at UCLA

Posted by Russell on November 16, 2006 at 5:23 p.m.
Los Angeles is famous for our videotapes of our police beating the shit out of defenseless people. Now UCLA is famous for our video of our campus police tasering students. The LAPD has been operating under special judicial review since the Rodney King incident. Effectively, the whole department is on probation. But that hasn't stopped them from beating people up on camera.

UCLA should fire these guys. Never mind the moral impartive; they are a threat to the academic environment of the university.

Yet another idea for secure elections

Posted by Russell on November 15, 2006 at 6:25 a.m.
Enthusiasm for schemes with which to conduct an anonymous, fraud-proof elections once again seems to have waxed. So, here is my humble offering.
  • Three months before the election, set up 150 vote counting centers, three in each state. Each center must be capable of processing the entire national election by itself. This is to protect against large numbers of centers being shut down, and to make sure the counting happens quickly.
  • Allow anyone to come to the vote counting center and inspect the equipment, interview the personnel, and test the machines.
  • As long as the vote counting center is open, there must be nearby courts reserved specifically for hearing complaints about the vote counting procedure.
  • In the months before the election, distribute a few rounds of test ballots with imaginary candidates. Anyone may submit a test ballot and see that their vote was counted.
  • The week before the election, official ballot kits are printed at the vote counting centers. All aspects of the printing process are open to the public. Anyone may cull a ballot kit from the print process for inspection. All culled ballots must be immediately and publicly destroyed once inspected. Each ballot kit contains a local voter guide (like California's Voter Information Guide), a ballot sheet, three envelopes, and a special card marked with the serial number matching the ballot sheet. The card must be printed on something that can be easily and utterly destroyed by the voter. For example, paper that quickly dissolves in water. Each ballot kit is sealed in an air tight pouch with a tamper detection card; once the detector is exposed to air or light, it changes color and clearly indicates a spoiled ballot kit.
  • At this point, if there are unaddressed problems at a vote counting center, it will be shut down and the ballot kits printed there destroyed. The courts will be instructed to accept nothing short of perfect working order.
  • One week is set aside for voting. Everyone gets at least one paid vacation day and one half day.
  • On the first day of the election week, distribute ballot kits to their respective localities. Ballots for different localities can be requested by people who will be away from home. Ballots are also sent to all U.S. embassies and consular offices for citizens traveling or living abroad.
  • During the election week, local post offices will remain open extended hours.
  • Everyone marks their ballot sheets. Each one has three carbon copies. Each copy goes into one of the envelopes. To submit a ballot, the voter goes to the post office and presents their ID. Their voter registration number is logged in a central database so that they cannot submit more than three ballots.
  • The voter may then send the ballot to any vote counting center.
  • Voters may drop off the envelopes at different post offices, or on different days. If they like, they can also drop off their ballots directly at the voting centers.
  • At the end of each day during the week, the USPS suspends normal operations and processes ONLY ballot deliveries. USPS vehicles are escorted by police to the vote counting centers, but anyone is allowed to follow and videotape the delivery.
  • When the election week is over, the ballot envelopes are opened and the ballots scanned. All aspects of this process are open to the public.
  • When a ballot is scanned, its serial number and vote tallies are logged. When all votes are counted, the complete logs are published on the Internet in files of large groups of sequential serial numbers. To find your vote, you retrieve the range of votes that contains your serial number.
  • Redundant ballots are logged but not added to the count.
  • The final result of the election can be tabulated by anyone with some hard drive space and a simple program.
I think that would probably address most of the really bad problems with our elections. I like the idea of sitting down on a vacation day with my ballot, reading the information guide for a while, maybe checking stuff online if I'm curious, and then dropping it off when I'm done. It could be sort of like Thanksgiving, but with an actual serious purpose.

With a week's time instead of a single workday, there would actually be time to address problems that come up. If you go to vote and discover that you aren't registered, you get it fixed (even if it takes a day or two). If someone distributes misleading campaign information, there is time to alert people. The most important thing, though, is that it would make it possible for ordinary people to help verify the integrity of the system in a meaningful way.

It would still be possible to steal an election, but it would be hugely difficult to do without getting noticed. Even if one were able to subvert several of the voting centers, it would still leave very obvious statistical fingerprints. In each subverted counting center, there would be no way to know where the other two copies of a particular vote went until after the count is complete. Stealing a vote would require subverting at least three counting centers and isolating only the votes whose ballots happened to be sent to those particular centers. This would have to be done during the counting process while people are watching. To defeat a large-scale attack, all that is needed is to detect or thwart this exchange of information. Any other sort of attack would require getting at ballots before they are delivered. Ordinary people could make that very difficult just by following the ballot boxes.

In any event, the result isn't actually calculated by the center; it can be calculated by anyone. This makes it impossible to hide stolen votes in the aggregate numbers. If votes were stolen, the people who cast those votes would know. And in any event, the paper ballot sheets themselves would still exist. The fact that each vote would be shuffled across the country in a different way would require an attacker to destroy every one of the ballot archives to conceal the fraud. So, of course, one could simply say that the election results are valid only as long as its archives physically exist. If the archives are destroyed, a new election must be held immediately.

Hats off to Chafee

Posted by Russell on November 10, 2006 at 3:34 p.m.
Lincoln Chafee, who lost to his Democratic rival, has pledged to block the re-nomination of John Bolton. Chafee's defeat is one of the races that I feel a little pang of regret about. I can't say I agree with him on very many things, but I always got the impression that Chafee is one of the reasonable Republicans. It always seemed that going into a debate, he would actually admit the possibility that the other side might be right. If people like him had more influence over the Republican party, the last six years wouldn't have been so terrible.

On the other hand, if he really had wanted to oppose the Bush-DeLay-Frist triumvirate, he could have followed Senator Jeffords and switched parties. He would have been welcomed. Unfortunately, he must have believed his party's (rather un-American) rhetoric that the Democrats were a permanent minority, and knew that under the Republican reign, the minority would have no voice.

Nevertheless, Democrats owe Mr. Chafee a salute :

"The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of fronts, and presumably one of those is on foreign policy," the Rhode Island moderate told The Associated Press.

"And at this late stage in my term, I'm not going to endorse something the American people have spoke out against."

Earth to Bush: Chafee is right, and has been right on a lot of things where you've been wrong. Stop doing things that America doesn't want. If you had listened, your party might not have taken such a "thumping."

Oh well. The Republican party is going to have to rebuild itself, and I hope Chafee gets to play a role in that. I don't think the Republican party deserves to be the majority party for a long, long time, but our system is supposed to give the minority party a meaningful role in government. Everyone would benefit if the GOP was dominated by principled conservatives, instead of corrupt, cowardly and crazy assholes. "Bipartisan" should mean "ideologically neutral." For most of the last six years, it has meant GOP ideas with support from a few particularly craven, power-starved Democrats.

Unless the GOP reforms itself, "bipartisan" is going to mean a Democratic idea tempered with concessions to nutcases. I'd rather have Democratic ideas tempered by conservative ones. You know -- legislation that is the product spirited of debate, deliberation and careful weighing pros and cons. Whoever is in control, you can't have a serious debate, or the ideologically neutral legislation that comes from serious debate, without a willingness on both sides to play fair.

Chafee is one of the few Republicans that knows how to put doing-the-right-thing ahead of winning. But in January, he's gone. Hopefully there are others in among the smoldering remains of his party that will follow his lead, and play a constructive role by keeping conservative ideas part of the legislative debate.

w00t!

Posted by Russell on November 08, 2006 at 2:15 p.m.
Welcome to the Post November 7th world.

Voted.

Posted by Russell on November 07, 2006 at 7:20 p.m.
On one hand, I'm very glad to live in the district that is sending Henry Waxman back to Congress, but on the other hand, I almost wish I lived in one of the districts where things are close.

As it is, I get throw another protest vote against the Terminator, vote against yet another stupid parental notification anti-abortion initiative, and give a thumbs up (along with pretty much everyone else) to Waxman. The only item we get to vote on here that will make much difference is Prop 87, which will probably pass in my district. All the real action is happening elsewhere.

My polling place is at the neighborhood Good Will center. They had an optical scanner sitting on top of the ballot box. You drop your ballot into the machine, and it shows you what you voted for. If there is anything wrong with the ballot, or if you cancel it, it spits out and gives you a ticket for a fresh ballot. When you approve your vote, it drops into the ballot box and gives you two receipts -- one tells you what you voted for, and the other has the serial number on your ballot. I suppose in theory, if there were a recount, you could show up with your receipt and demand to know that your particular ballot was counted.

Off to Vote

Posted by Russell on November 07, 2006 at 4:59 p.m.
I'm off to vote.

To Boston and Back

Posted by Russell on November 06, 2006 at 2:59 p.m.
I'm on the airplane, flying back to L.A. after visiting Mimi in Boston. The time difference and flying on the red-eye really screwed with my head, so I was at best three-quarters conscious most of the weekend. Somewhere along the way, I also managed to see Adam, Billy, Chris, Kevin and Tom.

Mimi and I had all sorts of ambitious plans for the weekend, but mostly we ended up sleeping in. I don't think I can imagine a better way to spend a weekend!

On the downside, I realized I left my shaver and toothbrush in Boston. Also, my homework failed to do itself, despite the fact that I carried it around in my backpack all weekend. Maybe I should have shaken it more vigorously, or something.

Mimi! Hurry up and graduate already!

Tasty Python Snacks

Posted by Russell on November 06, 2006 at 2:51 p.m.
Languages like Python are great for tasks that require manipulating complicated data. The main complaint about such languages is that they aren't as fast as compiled languages. For scientific computing (and a lot of other things), that's a show-stopper. However...
from weave import inline
a = 25
code = \
	"""
	int i = a;
	while( i > 1 ) {
		printf("a number: %d\\n",i);
		i = i / 2;
	}
	return_val = i;
	"""
inline(code, ['a'])
===output===

a number: 25
a number: 12
a number: 6
a number: 3
1
My mind just spins thinking of all the horrible, horrible things I can do with that.

Teaching

Posted by Russell on November 05, 2006 at 3:55 a.m.
I met up with Gabe, Eric, Becky and Steve and we went over to Para Los NiƱos, where we did a 40 minute demonstration of static and induced magnetic fields. Everyone seemed to have a great time. Instead of taking pictures myself, I handed my camera over to the regular teacher, who took some great shots.

In this demonstration, we used a piece of high-temperature superconductor glued to the bottom of a Styrafoam cup. These superconductors work at liquid nitrogen temperatures, so Eric brought a dewar of it from UCLA. Once the superconductor is cooled down, the cup easily levitates above and floats up and down special track of strong magnets. The magnets on the ends are inverted, so they act as little magnetic bumpers. The cup happily floats back and forth until the liquid nitrogen boils off.

The kids had a great time pushing it up and down the track. It's a very compelling demonstration, and one I've never had the chance to see before.

We also brought a large electromagnet designed to run off of 120 VAC. We used it to shoot aluminum and copper rings into the air (rail gun!!). We also had these nifty little magnetic probes -- basically, a tiny bar magnet on two-axis gimbals -- that are supposed to be used to show the orientation of a magnetic field. The idea is that you put them near a magnet and move them to different positions, and the bar magnet will always be free to rotate into alignment with the field. I figured that they would do something more interesting in an alternating magnetic field, and indeed, they made fantastic impromptu AC motors.

We had a few other cool demonstrations, too. We watched some strong magnets float down copper and aluminum pipes, dragged by the magnetic fields of the image currents in the metal pipes.

As usual, the kids were fantastic. LA has heartbreaking problems with its schools, but this place gives me some hope that those problems can be fixed fairly rapidly. The kids in this program have a lot stacked against them; poverty, no English-speakers at home, foster care, or often all three at once. With all the administrative problems the LAUSD has, it can barely provide adequate education for kids who everything going for them. These kids would normally be tossed aside as a lost cause.

Lost cause indeed. One of the kids told us that, "UCLA is my dream school." Steve told him that he'd look for him in freshman physics in a couple of years. When you see how they act in the classroom, you'd never question thier chances. But then I remember what they have in store for them; there is no program like this beyond the primary school level. Plus, the UC budget hasn't done much to increase the number of scholarships, and fees keep going up. Even middle class families are starting to get priced out of a public university education. I hope that kid gets his wish, but I worry that he'll be cheated out of it.

Sense

Posted by Russell on November 02, 2006 at 7:45 p.m.
I almost hate to admit that I heard them from Slashdot, but there are three bits of good news today.

First, Viacom's Comedy Central has announced that it will allow YouTube to continue hosting clips from it's programs (like the Daily Show). This is an important step forward for a major copyright holder. Viacom is demonstrating that it may be developing a new understanding of the role of copyright: They are beginning to understand that copyrights are for making money, not for asserting control. In bygone years, control of the material was essential for making money. Bootleggers used to take a big bite out of author's revenues. In order to see a profit from their writing, Voltare and Jonathan Swift had to take extraordinary measures, such as writing in secret, hiring armed guards to transport manuscripts, and taking terrible financial risks by borrowing money to finance huge first printings. They knew that if a book was successful, the first printing would probably be the only profitable printing, and that bootleggers would quickly flood the market with poorly-transcribed counterfeits. The poor quality of the bootleg editions was often incorrectly attributed to the author -- most readers having never seen the original edition -- and so bootlegging was also a threat to critical success. Copyright gave authors very necessary legal means of protecting themselves from bootleggers, and without it, most literature would have been impossible.

Oddly enough, digital reproduction and distribution of media over he Internet has pretty much killed the bootleggers. The dynamics the publishing business has fundamentally changed, and the 18th century view of copyright, that profits are predicated on control, is becoming increasingly inappropriate. There is a lot of anxiety among copyright holders about this. Digital Rights Management and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are aimed at preserving the 18th century publishing business model. This is understandable, given how much wonderful stuff the system brought into the world by making it possible for authors to make a living by publishing their work. It makes sense not to want to abandon it.

However, it also doesn't make sense to hold onto an idea that is no longer operative. If Viacom is willing to let people share clips of its shows on YouTube, perhaps this is an indication that the company sees a different way of making money that doesn't rely on the assumption that profits are predicated on control. Hopefully, they are right, and this assuages people's anxieties about re-thinking our copyright laws.

The second bit of good news is that there are rumblings from people at Microsoft are growing unhappy with their relationship with the People's Republic of China. I've puzzled by the simple-mindedness of the arguments in favor of doing business in China. Yes, it's potentially a huge market. Yes, there are certain advantages bestowed upon the first business to enter a market. However, most of this "market" remains in desperate poverty, and is probably more interested in basic sanitation, education and nutrition than in buying our products. China is also governed by a brutal and occasionally genocidal dictatorship that is often openly hostile to American interests.

If I were the CEO of an American company, especially a technology company, it would take more than just the vague opportunity of accessing a large, untapped market to convince me to do business in China. I would be immediately skeptical of the opportunity on the grounds that most people in China still do not make enough money to pay even a small fraction of the the American price of my products. Unless I'm willing to sell my product for a tenth or a hundredth of the American price, my customers would be limited to city-dwellers, and of those, only the relatively elite. Most of China is, and will remain for a long time, an intermittently hostile third world country. I very much hope that things will get better for the people of China, but for now, the reality is that it's a tough place to find a profit.

So, the likely financial benefits are not so great. The potential downsides, especially morally and politically, are huge. I would remind Microsoft of the position in which IBM found itself in 1941, having done a brisk business with Germany for years. It was with IBM's Hollerith punch cards that Germany identified, tracked and ultimately murdered millions of people. Now, imagine that you are a programmer working for Microsoft. You learn that Microsoft Sales gave the Chinese intelligence services a great deal on five thousand licenses of the program you write. The licenses are for a new unit which uses your software to hunt down journalists and labor organizers, and have them imprisoned or executed.

That's not far fetched. That is actually happening. If I were that programmer, I would be very, very uncomfortable with my role in making life just that much more miserable for people unfortunate enough to live under the PRC. If I were the CEO, I would be very wary of the damage my company's reputation would suffer if it were seen to be enabling human rights abuses. Never mind the very real risk of prosecution if there was more than just a perception of enabling behavior.

So, if Microsoft is giving this some serious thought, I applaud them. When I was a sophomore in high school, the "hot idea" in the policy debate tournaments in which I competed was Constructive Engagement. It seemed plausible; we will influence China by cultural and economic means, and bring about democratic changes by these means rather than direct diplomacy or containment. The trouble was that Constructive Engagement has been used as blanket justification for any and all trade dealings with China. The other trouble is that China's leaders, however oppressive, are extremely smart, and have exploited the idea of Constructive Engagement to their maximum advantage. Which is to say, they've gladly accepted from us whatever strengthens state authority, and declined what would undermine it. It is also much more difficult for American culture to influence China to the extent that it has influenced other places. China has a very strong indigenous commercial culture which is much, much older than America's. McDonald's and Levi's don't have any ideas to offer that Chinese customers and businesspeople haven't known about for a hundred generations. The success of Constructive Engagement is predicated on the gradual replacement of aspects of their culture with aspects of ours. It won't work for the simple reason that China already has a culture, and they seem to like it just fine. The problem isn't Chinese culture; the problem is stupid ideas from 19th century Germany exploited by a 20th century genocidal maniac who is now idolized by 21st century totalitarian fuck-heads who are busily crushing the ambitions of a billion and a quarter ordinary people.

That's the problem.

The third bit of hopeful news is that Microsoft an Novel are forming a partnership. It's about time that Microsoft quit trying to rub Linux out of existence and start looking at it as a platform for which they could be selling copies of Microsoft Office. They haven't announced anything like Office for Linux, but this is one step closer.

That, plus the polls heading into the election, give me a bit of hope that maybe sanity will prevail after all, at least for a few things.